Back to School, N.Y.-You’re Late!

Batten down, Manhattan! It’s going to be a no-nonsense, don’t-screw-with-me kind of autumn. And thank goodness. We all need a bit of starch.

The summer of ’03 never really congealed: There was no great love affair, no memorable bikini, no lingering zinc-y aftertaste of scandal, the kind that makes you want to scrub your palate with baking soda for two or three hours. It was a summer of retrogression: First, the replacement of Howlin’ Howell Raines with The Times ‘ schoolmarmish new executive editor, Bill Keller. Take enough personal time with your family, he told the paper’s staff. All right, Bill! Obediently, moviegoers stood on line to see Finding Nemo , a movie we knew backwards before it was made. Rejected: bodacious, bemuscled power babes Cameron, Drew, Lucy, Angelina and Ahnold: Charlie’s Tomb-Raiding Terminators III . Last year’s theme parks. Then the lights went out, and Mayor Bloomberg instructed us to turn off the air conditioners. It wasn’t terrorism! Sweaty white collars exhaled, then trudged up stairwells to nap for the 4 a.m. spectacle of the West Side lighting up in a cartoon flash. The real action in this crazy world was elsewhere: dopey California, hot Europe, hotter Iraq. It wasn’t so much a hot, vicious New York summer as a season that never was. Remember Seabiscuit ? No. It was like that.

Then, like clockwork, Sept. 1. Cool rain, sweet sweep of autumn, dumb Presidential candidates. Sept. 11 looms, choked grief. Winding around it like ivy vines are the signs of life that only autumn in New York brings: new movies, mobs at the Gap, little girls in school uniforms. But there’s a tough, no-nonsense attitude that it will take to make it through this strange season. A year from now, Republicans in New York! Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh at the Garden. For now, just Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation , Christina Ricci in Woody Allen’s Anything Else , the Yankees in the Bronx, the soaked tennis courts in Flushing, a stern Mayor, a fizzy stock market, crisp mornings, long afternoons, the sun dropping, brisk and efficient. Hemlines are up. Glitzy galas are passé. People are eating sandwiches and chops. Right now, for once, it’s the rest of the world that seems nutty, jumpy, neurotic. For the first time in a long time, New York feels like … home. Back to School, N.Y.-You’re Late!